Communicating With Your Farrier

If you're anything like me, you find farriery a bit of a mystery. After years of horse ownership, I can give an antibiotic injection prescribed by my veterinarian without flinching, I can spot a slipped stifle at 100 paces, and I can hitch up my trailer all by myself--yet when my farrier puts that last hoof down and begins to pack his gear away, I confess that I have a tendency to write out the check meekly without really being sure that the job he's just done on my horse is everything it ought to be.

Shoeing a Belgian

Communication is a two-way street. Showing an interest is the first step in educating yourself. Make every effort to be there when your farrier works on your horse and speak up if you have a question or comment.

Why is it so difficult for owners to communicate with farriers? Part of the problem, I suspect, is that shoeing is an intimidating art, and we often feel we don't know enough about it to ask an intelligent question. Rather than look stupid, we keep our mouths shut, and so we don't learn anything new. And part of it is that the average farrier (and forgive me for evoking a stereotype here) is a man (or woman) of few words, not particularly given to volunteering information about the job that's being done with hoof knife and rasp. "Don't ask; don't tell" is a syndrome which has left many an owner uninformed, and many a farrier unsure of whether he has a satisfied client or not.

Still, for the benefit of our horses, we owners really ought to be knowledgeable enough to spot a good shoeing job when we see it, as well as be able to identify problems before they become crises. In order to do that, we need to learn from the source--the person whom we've charged with the responsibility of our horse's hoof health. We ought to be able to speak frankly with our farriers--who are, after all, performing a service for us and our horses. Here, then, are some tips for forging (sorry) a productive information exchange with your farrier.

Communication 101

Communication, of course, is a two-way street. Both parties must be interested in an idea exchange in order for it to occur.

Frank Lessiter, editor/publisher of the American Farrier's Journal, notes that there are a couple of schools of thought among farriers. "Some guys think that owners should leave farriery to farriers," he says, "and not interfere with the job being done. But the really good farriers are happy to have the owners involved, and want to educate them about the anatomy of the foot and the type of shoeing being done."

That applies to owners as well. "It's a lot like going to your doctor. Some people want to know everything about their condition, while others prefer to know as little as possible; they just want it treated." But, says Lessiter, an interested and informed owner is a benefit to the farrier because he or she will be able to recognize a shoeing problem, and will call right away when one surfaces, rather than procrastinating for weeks on end.

Certified Journeyman Farrier Wes Goff, whose Bethany, Ontario-based shoeing business concentrates on sport horses, says, "I try to educate my clients, because if I can educate them, that client is usually a 'keeper.' I want people to ask questions--but some owners are intimidated. Sometimes, too, I run into trainers who feel they should know what they're looking at, and they don't want to lose face by admitting they don't!

"Some clients just want what I call a 'plumber'--a guy who just comes in and fixes the problem with no discussion. Others want to be able to go over all of the options.

"Most shoers are nice people, who want to please their clients," Goff continues. "It's important to realize that farriery is hard work--it's demanding both physically and mentally, and on top of it you have to be a public relations genius, too. No one works this hard to do a bad job, and have a shoe come off or a horse go lame. But some farriers are more comfortable with communicating than others."

Showing an interest is the first step in educating yourself. Make every effort to be there when your farrier works on your horse, and speak up if you have a question or comment. Part of your "edge" as the horse's owner is that you know what's going on with his feet on a day-to-day basis. If your horse forges on circles but not on straightaways, if he tends to pull his front shoes off only in downward transitions, or if he feels like he moves a little "short" with his right hind on one posting diagonal, that's all valuable information your farrier will need in order to shoe your horse most effectively.

Certified Journeyman Farrier Randy Luikart, of Mansfield, Ohio, notes, "The input you can provide as the horse's rider is invaluable. You're the one working with the horse on a daily basis; you're the one sitting on his back. But you have to be able to explain the problem clearly to your farrier--remember that many farriers don't even ride."

For his part, Luikart says, your farrier should be willing to watch your horse move, both on the lead shank or lunge line, and under saddle (or in harness). "Some farriers will tell you they don't have the time to do that, but that's just garbage," he says. "They should make the time to watch the horse work... and also to examine the wear patterns on the shoes the horse has worn. The shoes can tell you whether the horse breaks over to the inside or outside, whether he's bearing all his weight on too small a surface, whether he's sound or sore." That, coupled with the details you, as owner, provide, can help your farrier perform the best possible shoeing job for your horse.

Because farriery can be such a complicated science, it can be difficult for farriers to explain some of the concepts to their clients. "I tend to use little analogies whenever I can, to make it easier to understand," says Luikart. "One explanation will not always work for all people, either--some are just wired differently, so I have to find another way to describe it." Lessiter tells of farriers who tote VCRs on their trucks, so they can show their clients videotapes of particular shoeing techniques. And Goff finds the use of visual aids, such as anatomical models of the equine foot, particularly valuable. He points out that a farrier who's used to educating others--someone who does Pony Club or 4-H lectures, teaches farriery to others, or has a background in public speaking--can find it much easier to talk with clients about the finer points of farriery. "It's very awkward and uncomfortable for most farriers at first--I think it's a little like asking a hockey player to expound on world politics!--but I think it's really useful (for farriers) to learn to speak to a group, or an individual, about what you're doing and why. I love the stimulus of teaching--it keeps me on my toes."

"A good basic knowledge of hoof anatomy is a great help in communicating with your farrier," says Lessiter. "You can learn it elsewhere, in books, or you can ask to be shown (by your farrier)--but establish that understanding somehow, so that you and your shoer can be on the same wavelength."

A Little Knowledge

Sometimes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. "Farriers tell me they really hate it when an article with shoeing tips comes out in a general-interest horse magazine because they know they're going to be bombarded with questions, most of which run along the lines of 'why aren't you shoeing my horse like this,'" says Lessiter. "Well, there's no one answer with horseshoeing. What's appropriate for one horse isn't necessarily appropriate for another. It's the farrier's responsibility to be able to explain just why a particular shoeing technique is, or isn't, the best approach for the client's particular horse."

Goff notes that a certain amount of diplomacy is appropriate in this circumstance. "Particularly with new clients, I have to help them sort all the information they receive, and guide them as to what's appropriate for their horses. If their horse's conformation dictates a certain approach, I should be able to explain why. And it's my responsibility to keep up-to-date with the new information and techniques that develop, so that when owners start asking questions, I'm prepared."

Then, too, it's important to recognize that farriers aren't mindreaders. Says Goff, "Some problems--forging, for instance--can have several causes, and what works for one horse won't necessarily work for another. To solve the problem, I need to have more information. Does he forge when he's lengthening at the trot, when he moves downhill... all the time, or just when he's tired? The more specific you can be, the better a chance I have of helping your horse. If I don't fix the problem the first time, rest assured I'll keep trying different approaches till I find what works. And if I don't have the answer to a question, I'll find out for you."

When a farrier is treating a specific problem (such as laminitis or a quarter crack), most owners will want to know the details of the treatment and the expected recovery time. "If there's a medical problem," Luikart says, "one of the most important things a farrier should know is when to recommend to call the vet."

The Vet-Farrier Dynamic

One of the most difficult situations an owner can find herself in occurs when both a veterinarian and a farrier are involved in consulting on a horse's hoof problem and they can't agree on diagnosis or treatment. It's uncomfortable, and by no means rare, for an owner to feel caught in the middle, unsure of whose assessment is the more accurate or reasonable. Professional egos, on both sides, can sometimes prevent veterinarians and farriers from working together.

Lessiter suspects part of the problem is that the average veterinarian gets relatively little education in veterinary school which focuses specifically on hoof health and that may engender either a lack of respect for the farrier's knowledge, or a certain amount of insecurity about it. The American Farrier's Association, in conjunction with the American Association of Equine Practitioners, does have a "Hoof Day" program that provides extra education at veterinary colleges across the United States, but financial limitations mean that the program can only visit three or four schools a year. Much of the responsibility still falls on individual farriers. "I do try to subtly educate vets," says Goff, "but I'm careful not to do it in front of the client."

Also, because certification is not yet mandatory among farriers, the level of knowledge from shoer to shoer can vary a great deal. As AFA certification becomes more universal, however, and as farriers become motivated to increase their knowledge and the level of their certification, these tensions will likely ease. Many farriers are becoming more interested in learning from veterinarians, as well. Certainly the governing associations of both "camps" feel that each has much to contribute to the other. Recently, the AAEP and AFA jointly issued a set of "Guidelines for Professional Conduct" with suggestions on how veterinarians and farriers can work together productively. The document emphasizes respect for the farrier's knowledge and education, and the value of ongoing consultation between the two groups of professionals, while concluding that when it comes to medical problems, the ultimate responsibility is the veterinarian's.

If your veterinarian and farrier aren't working together, the guidelines should be required reading.

"I think, as a whole, that the triangle of vets, farriers, and owners doesn't communicate as well as they should," says Luikart. "Everyone should make a concentrated effort to work together--because the ultimate beneficiary is the horse."

The Care And Feeding Of Farriers

At the heart of it, the owner/farrier relationship should be based on good business principles and mutual respect. "I think it's interesting," says Goff, "that some farriers don't really appreciate just how much we are in (a client's) personal space when we shoe a horse. For many owners, their horses are more important to them than their spouses, and the barn is their special, private space-and yet there we are, often virtual strangers, with a huge influence over the health of that horse."

The moral, according to Goff, is this: "You want someone whose advice you can trust." Check your farrier out; make sure he is AFA-certified and that he is a reputable businessman. (Word of mouth is still the best recommendation.) It's a great help, too, if your farrier is familiar with the type of work you do with your horses. Though basic principles of hoof care are much the same, the intricacies of shoeing a Standardbred racehorse vs. a reining horse vs. a Tennessee Walker are vastly different. Your farrier doesn't have to compete in your particular discipline himself, of course, but it helps if he understands the type of footing your horse will have to deal with, and the specific requirements of the sport.

And, of course, you want to seek out a shoer who is willing to explain just what he is doing and why. Says Goff, "You have the right to ask questions. You're paying him for his knowledge, so you should be able to pick his brain." Lessiter agrees, "Most farriers have no trade secrets they want to hide. The more talented they are, the more willing they should be to share their knowledge. A farrier who doesn't want to talk or answer questions is perhaps not the best farrier for you--unless you're just looking for the cheapest shoeing job, instead of the best."

A competent farrier also should be able to run his business on a professional level. One of the most frustrating scenarios occurs when a farrier doesn't show up when he's scheduled. Of course, shoeing is not an exact science, and circumstances might often make a farrier run late, but in that case, Lessiter says, the farrier has a responsibility to call and inform the owner. In the age of cellular phones and pagers, communication has been streamlined considerably, and a farrier who doesn't take advantage of this technology will inevitably lose clients.

You, as an owner, also have responsibilities in this relationship. For instance, it's your mandate to ensure that your horse is well-trained before the farrier darkens your door. Your horse should stand calmly in cross-ties and be used to having his feet picked up and handled. "Or, if your horse is not trained, at least be honest enough to tell me that over the phone," says Goff. "Then I can make the decision as to whether I want to deal with him or not. It's not my job to train your horse, and one of the worst things a client can do is ambush me with an ill-mannered animal."

It's equally important for owners to make sure their horses are ready to be shod at the appointed time. Don't expect your farrier to fish old Rusty out of the field himself; have him available in a stall, and clear a space in the barn that's free of commotion and accessible to the farrier's truck. "If I've been considerate enough to come on time," says Goff, "then don't keep leading horses by while I'm trying to work, or feed everyone else in the barn so that the horse I'm working on gets tense. A horse who's leaping around will get me hurt and if I get hurt, I can't make a living."

A little consideration--and a hot cup of coffee--go a long way. "Don't bring me an extra horse on late Friday afternoon, when I'm tired, and don't set me up for failure by bringing me the most difficult actor at the end of the day," says Goff. "Sometimes people don't realize just how much driving I do in a day, and how physically demanding shoeing is. It's a one-man business, for most of us--we do all the booking, the organizing, and the accounting, and it can take a lot of juggling to fit all of my clients in, particularly those in remote locations or those who have just one horse."

This might sound obvious, but part of the care and feeding of a good farrier is prompt payment of your bills. "Treat me right and I'll treat you right," says Goff. "Within reason, I'd really like a check when I'm done with the job."

For his part, Goff says that whenever possible, he arranges future appointments for his clients on a regular schedule (usually every six weeks), and will call to confirm dates and times; he also makes a point of doing follow-up calls when trying to fix specific problems. "The bottom line is really this: Is the horse sound? Do the shoes stay on? Does the job look professional? And is the client happy?" he says.

And if your horse's good shoeing job means that he travels straighter or sounder, a thank-you phone call to your farrier can go a long way toward encouraging and maintaining a good relationship, says Lessiter. It's a little thing--but it might just mean a lot. After all, as Luikart points out, the ultimate beneficiary is the farrier's real client, the horse.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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